There was so much variety and opportunity for adventure that it is astounding we still had some time to immerse and fully relax during my recent visit with my husband and friends to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos!
We started out in Hanoi, a large and crowded city where the moped is the preferred method of transportation both for riders and consumer goods. No place I have visited in Asia has as many mopeds and cars competing for space and ignoring traffic signals. Surely, the frenetic pace was exacerbated by the preparation for the festivities of Chinese New Year, when families and friends spend a week in celebration and virtual hibernation, while the entire city shuts down. It was fun to witness the total disregard for decorum on the streets, particularly against the backdrop of a society strict with rules and regulations under the Communist regime.
Our first stop in Hanoi the night after arrival was the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s revered leader of the ‘60s and ‘70s. A visit to the mausoleum, or any of the other government-related buildings and edifices, is a complete indoctrination into the rigidity of the society: walk in single file, do not stop, stay within the painted lines, take off your hat, keep your hands out of your pockets, do not speak, do not smile.
Hoa Lo Prison, dis-affectionately named by American POWs as the Hanoi Hilton, is another study in government control and propaganda in retelling the story of those America prisoners in the “American War” that most modern-day Vietnamese agree might be a stretch from reality.
Somber and soul-searching for those of us old enough to remember the war, the scenes and stories are a little disconcerting, but also are a must-see in terms of understanding what both countries went through in this dismal time in our shared history.
A rickshaw ride through the crowded and chaotic streets of Hanoi’s old quarter will send your heart racing as you fully absorb the street scene and people rushing about their daily lives. This thrill ride includes weaving through traffic on the 10-lane boulevard and down narrow side streets where your driver jostles for position among other rickshaws, taxis, mopeds, cars, trucks and pedestrians. Just as a rickshaw ride is a highly recommended activity, skip the water puppet show, a maniacal musical with creepy looking ceramic puppets, manipulated by people standing waist-deep in water behind a curtain. Although the subject of great mirth among our fellow travelers throughout the remaining trip, this one is for the receptacle.
Another fun cultural immersion, best enjoyed in the very early morning, is a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake, situated in the middle of Hanoi. Here, between the hours of 5:30 and 8:00 am you will have a chance to observe and even join the locals in any number of group dance and exercise routines. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people flock to this community spot to dance to “Havana” or other current pop tunes as a start to their day. Park benches, trees, fences and curbs serve as gym equipment to this strange conglomeration of participants.
While in Hanoi, your guide will take you to an authentic lacquer factory and gallery, then on to a silk thread artist to pick up some beautiful artifacts and housewares unique to Vietnam.
Two hours south of Hanoi is the Unesco World Heritage site of Halong Bay. Here you can observe thousands of strange and beautiful limestone karst formations that rise dramatically from the sea. The small cruise ships offer large and spacious cabins with outdoor decks and conduct pre-planned shore excursions to kayak, hike or swim along the islands and shores. Food is served buffet-style and offers a variety of Vietnamese dishes. It’s best to choose a season where the sun is shining and the temperature warm but not too hot, to fully enjoy the experience. March, April, September and October would be ideal months to explore the Bay, and certainly an overnight is enough time in this laid-back, even lazy excursion.
Saigon, officially known as Ho Chi Minh City, but still referred to by its citizens as Saigon, is a dynamic, more westernized city than Hanoi, where residents seem less conservative and more willing to enjoy life to the fullest. The Hotel des Artes, located in the city center, close to Notre Dame Cathedral, is an excellent place in the center of restaurants, nightlife and shopping from which to enjoy the city sights and entertainment. Saigon seems sleepy in the mornings but comes to life at night.
Several day trips can be enjoyed from the city, including the Cu Chi Tunnels, an interesting portrayal of the world of the Viet Cong in Southern Vietnam who were integral to the North’s success against South Vietnam in the Vietnam War, as well as to the Vietnamese as a whole against the French during their decades-long struggle for independence prior to the Vietnam war. This incredible underground maze of tunnels brings awareness to the fortitude, ingenuity and perseverance of the Vietnamese. It’s hard to imagine the conditions they lived in within these tunnels, hiding just a few kilometers from an American base. Again, the story told by the government-controlled site is difficult, and can be skipped, but the story of the tunnels is interesting and well worth the hour-and-half boat ride down the Mekong River.
Ben Tre Province, two hours from Saigon, offers a different insight into the village life in Vietnam, which hasn’t changed much in decades since the war. Cruising on a bicycle is a great way to see close-up real life in the rice paddies, farms and villages; boat rides down the Mekong and through the tributaries to visit the coconut factories is also a great way to absorb the culture that defines rural Vietnam.
We left Vietnam and its Chinese New Year behind to visit Cambodia, a small country south of Vietnam, known both for its famous temples, Angor Wat being the most well-known, as well as for the atrocities suffered by the people when Pol Pot came to power in the mid ‘70s as the U.S. and its allies left Vietnam. Pol Pot was responsible for executing as many as 2 million people, primarily the educated and upper stratus of society, producing a country that is still struggling to replace the void of doctors, teachers and skilled workers that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge wiped out during two decades of genocide.
The Cambodia people hold no ill will toward the Western world that was late to its rescue and prefer to look forward to the future. Kind, welcoming people are everywhere. We spent our time in Siem Reap and surrounding areas to bike, kayak, hike, ATV and of course to visit the temples and learn the rich involved history of Cambodia, its struggles throughout the centuries and its emergence as a much visited and loved tourist destination.
Siem Reap is best visited in the hands of an experienced guide who can maneuver the crowded attractions and ensure you VIP access to the sites. Not to miss in Cambodia is the evening Phare Circus show, not a circus, but a one-hour theatrical, acrobatic, physical musical whose name was inspired by Cirq de Soleil. Talented young artists, actors, set designers and musicians come together in this exhilarating show to showcase both modern day Khmer culture and humor.
Be sure to spend a couple hours venturing out via rickshaw and the marinas to the floating villages, located 10 km outside of Siem Reap and reachable by private boat hire (if pre-arranged). It is fascinating to view life in a floating village, complete with schools, hospitals, shopping center, government boats and colorful floating homes. Nearly 1 million people in Cambodia reside in these types of floating villages.
Next in our journey was a visit to the gentle, laid-back nation of Laos (pronounced “low,” rhymes with “how”). Here, we learned about weaving textiles and the products used to produce different colors, observed the intricate weaving looms in “Tak Bak,” a community weaving center and school where one can sign up for half- or full-day weaving classes and learn to dye the silk cloth from a variety of proven combinations of materials—rusty nails, shells, stones, plants etc. It’s best to visit Tak Bak on a weekday, as the looms will be idle on the weekends.
We also spent a few hours in a rice paddy, learning about the very manual, multi-step, back-breaking process of producing rice. Waterfalls, hiking and biking in the town of Luang Prubang, as well as sampling of local cuisine were other favorite activates in Laos.
Our trip continued to Chiang Mai, Thailand, just a short one-hour plane ride from Laos. Arriving on Sunday, we were treated just outside our hotel to the Sunday Market, held weekly inside the walls of the Old City, particularly inviting to locals who wish to find a good deal on a variety of products—food, clothing, art, gifts and even foot massages in the streets. This lively, crowded shopping event is fun for all and sure to provide many bargains to bring back home. T-shirts, sarongs, dresses elephant pants, scarves and wooden bowls all can be bargained down to outstanding prices. At 3 to 5 dollars, you can buy a comfortable and colorful one-size-fits-all cotton dress, pants or shirt.
Chiang Mai is also known for its elephant care camps and offers half- day or full-day immersion with the gentle Asian giants, most of whom were rescued from logging camps or circuses, some of whom are born into the camp and eventually rehabilitated and reintroduced to the wild. A mahout, or trainer, will accompany you on this day as a mahout-in-training where you learn to give your elephant commands, feed him, ride him, bathe and even play with him. A truly unusual and fun experience, be sure to work with a tour operator to find the reputable mahouts.
Cooking was perhaps the highlight of the trip to Chiang Mai, which included biking, hiking, waterfalls and visits to rural villages. The Pantawan Cooking School outside of Chiang Mai is a famous school known for its private classes, where each person has his own cooking station and tools and prepares a 5-course meal after observing each course prep with the main chef. After the demonstration, which requires some participation, each person returns to his station where the ingredients are laid out and she/he attempts to recreate the process. This fun activity produced some great dishes under the watchful eye of the chef and her assistants. The chef was also complete in providing recipes with work arounds for items we may not be able to duplicate in the States.
Lest we forget the multiple massage opportunities per day; Chiang Mai and indeed all of Thailand promises inexpensive massages and treatments available in myriad shops throughout the city. Delightful owners and masseuses are thrilled with their 50% tips on a $6 hour-long massage. Our group always knew where to find a missing mate in Chiang Mai; it was just a matter of which salon in which to find him.
My trip ended in Bangkok, with two days to enjoy the famous sites, shopping and more massages. Bangkok is experienced through the senses of taste, sight and touch. Tune out the noise and enjoy the massage. Tune out the crowds and feel the spirituality. Embrace the taste sensations of different food and spice combinations. This lively, busy, ever-evolving city has something for everyone who embraces diversity and spontaneity.
I can’t even begin to describe the variety and depth of the Southeast Asian experience. For each of us it is different story, and a different memory that defined our trip and our camaraderie as we experienced something so foreign from our own lives. Spiritual yes, boredom no. For each of us who traveled, there was a divine spirit that helped us explore, helped us connect and left us anchored to our world. Shall we return? I think yes—but to new experiences and new connections. May you find these unchartered waters and unexplored shores at least once in a lifetime.
Linda Shepro, Tribù Cofounder and Travel Expert
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